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Bethany McHugh Headshot

Nielsen in the New Age

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There is no mass audience anymore. As soon as we stop placing importance on this, the better chance networks have at surviving in the post-internet age. It's certainly plausible to break down an audience into different sized demographics and target a show towards it, but we no longer live in a society where 22 million people will tune in to a television show during primetime hours. The American public, at some point in the mid-1990s, made a conscious decision to remove the importance of sitting down and watching television together, and ending the stereotypical post-nuclear family vision of an evening around the set. What is the point of arranging your schedule around a show when there are technologies becoming increasingly available that removes this stress? Though millions still insisted on watching Friends at 8 p.m. on NBC every Thursday (it was, after all, "Must-See TV"), there is no penalty if one misses it: you can watch it tomorrow, at your leisure. DVR has spurred the idea of having a television program play "on-repeat," but instead of at the network's discretion, the viewers. VoD exists on the same practicality: it is not about where you can watch it (on your computer, your phone, etc.) but the sheer notion that you still don't have to watch it at only one specified time, but in fact whenever you desire to.

Furthermore, the success of shows is defined by a number attributed to a range -- specifically, the 18-49 demographic. Shows live or die by this outcome, and it's astonishing that with all the technology available to us a more definitive method hasn't been established. The differences between those who are closer to 18 than 49 is large, and creating something with that mass appeal is borderline impossible now. The Nielsen company gather ratings primarily based on live viewings, but so many people are not watching live. They're watching via DVR, Netflix, Hulu and furthermore talking on Twitter and Facebook -- the visibility of shows are now endless. But that doesn't mean they're not watching. It doesn't mean they don't want to watch. Television shows live and die by overwhelmingly pointless numbers. If a show doesn't attain "good" numbers, they're cancelled in favor of other programs, with often little regard for creative conclusions. As excellently explained in this New York Times article, with just the onslaught of new programming -- with various options not just on the major networks but with cable and pay-per-view -- it's impossible to watch everything that we want to watch. For example, Sunday evenings alone are a treacherous decision-making conundrum for TV Viewers: Mad Men and The Killing on AMC; Girls, Veep and Game of Thrones on HBO; Once Upon A Time and Desperate Housewives on ABC, not to mention the reality hits Real Housewives of New Jersey on Bravo and any one of the endless Kardashian installments on the E! Network. Bottom line: something is going to get missed, but that doesn't mean it isn't valued.

The competition is ruthless, and Nielsen is a take-no-prisoners kind of killing machine. Television is suffering because of this outdated ratings system. Cougar Town, for example, was snubbed rudely by ABC's marketing team, but the show is no stranger to the Twitter world. After the show was put on an unexplainable hiatus and given a decreased episode order, Bill Lawrence fought a courageous campaign on the social networking site -- in addition to viewing parties hosted around the country which he funded out-of-pocket -- to bring awareness to the production that he helms. Additionally, Community faced a similar struggle when his show was placed on the backburner by NBC in the middle of the normal television series. Both shows are critical darlings with huge cult followings. Cougar Town suffered with it's time slot placement last year: it followed Last Man Standing on Tuesday evenings, which has a completely different demographic than Cougar Town. It's move to TBS will herald the audience it so desperately needs, and appeals to. There is no doubt Mr. Lawrence has redefined the way we view and support television, and it's going to be a model for things to come.

Understanding that viewing no longer takes place on just a television is unequivocally the first step in making this change a reality. We are in a golden age of television, but this rating system would have you believe otherwise. While a rating system is indeed important, the methods by which we reach these numbers are outdated and inaccurate. "When television is good, nothing -- not the theater, not the magazines or newspapers -- nothing is better" Newton Minnow, head of the FCC said in 1961. The truth in this statement is astounding, so it is unacceptable of us to slack in ways to make it the best medium there is.